Student Choice, Intuition, and Poor Study Habits

One of the most concerning statements I see teachers make on twitter regarding student-choice* in the classroom goes something like this: “I provide student-choice in my classroom by allowing students to choose how they study/learn best.”  Why is this so concerning to me?  A majority of students don’t truly know how they study/learn best. Without specific instruction on the topic, students run a significant risk of not intuitively selecting the study habit or strategy that provides the greatest benefits for their learning.  

Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger III (2009) (1) explored study habits used by college students.  They surveyed 177 students and asked them two questions. For the sake of this post, I will only focus on question one:

  1. What kind of strategies do you use when you are studying?  List as many strategies as you use and rank-order them from strategies you use most often to strategies you use least often.

The results?  Repeated rereading was by far the most frequently listed strategy (84% reported using) and 55% reported that it was their number one strategy used.  Only 11% reported practicing recall (self-testing) of information and 1% identified practicing recall as their number one strategy.  This is not good for student-choice of study. 55% of those surveyed intuitively believed that rereading their notes best utilized their study time…assuming students intended on using their time most effectively.  This is just not so.

A phenomenon known as the testing effect indicates that retrieving information from memory has a great effect on learning and strengthens long-term retention of information (2).  The testing effect can take many forms, with the most important aspect being students retrieve information.  A common saying in my room is to make sure my students are only using their brain…if you’re using notes, the textbook, or someone else’s brain, you’re not doing it right.  While many correctly see this attempt as a great way to regulate and assess one’s knowledge, the act of recalling and retrieving strengthens long-term retention of information.

This is not so with repetitive rereading.  Memory research has shown rereading by itself is not an effective or efficient strategy for promoting learning and long-term retention (3).  Perhaps students believe the more time I spend studying, the more effective the learning. Is it correct to believe that the longer I studying something and keep it in my working memory, the better I will remember it?  No.

“Basic research on memory has shown that spending extra time maintaining or holding items in memory does not by itself promote learning (Craik & Watkins, 1973) (4)  and students may spend large amounts of additional time studying despite no gain in later memory for the items, a phenomenon called “labor-in-vain” during learning (Nelson & Leonesio, 1988) (5).”  (1)

All of this indicates a majority of college students do not make great choices when it comes to studying.  I am going to liberally apply these results to both middle and high school students, too. It seems highly unlikely to me that students would learn healthy study habits while in K-12 schooling and suddenly stop using them when college begins.  I believe most are never taught proper study habits and choose the path of least resistance…while rereading and highlighting may exhaust time while studying, it often utilizes little cognition. Also, peer-pressure. All the cool kids are doing it.  

One of the best things we, as teachers, can do for our students is to instruct them on the basic constructs and limitations of memory and how to utilize more effective and efficient study skills.  Generally speaking (or writing), people like to do things that provide positive results.  If we are to make lifelong learners of our students, teach them study habits that will produce more positive results.  Below are three fantastic resources for doing just that:

How to Get the Most Out of Studying video series by Dr. Stephen Chew.  It’s all on youtube and it’s simply fantastic.

The Learning Scientists blog and website.  A plethora of resources on the science of learning and a newly published book (Understanding How We Learn).

Retrieval Practice is “a hub of research, resources, and teaching strategies based on the science of learning.”


*I understand teachers who advocate for providing student-choice in the classroom may only provide options that are supported by research and don’t simply allow their students to do anything at all…sorry if that ruffled your feathers a bit.


  1. Karpicke, Jeffrey D., Butler, Andrew C. and Roediger III, Henry L. (2009) ‘Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?’, Memory, 17:4, 471 — 479.
  2. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181􏰀-210.
  3. McDaniel, M. A., & Callender, A. A. (2008). Cognition, memory, and education. In H. L. Roediger (Ed.), Cognitive psychology of memory, Vol. 2 of Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference (pp. 819􏰀-843). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
  4. Craik, F. I. M., & Watkins, M. J. (1973). The role of rehearsal in short-term memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 599􏰀-607.
  5. Nelson, T. O., & Leonesio, R. J. (1988). Allocation of self-paced study time and the ‘‘labor-in-vain effect’’. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 14, 676􏰀-686.


5 thoughts on “Student Choice, Intuition, and Poor Study Habits

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  1. I recently discovered your blog and I find it very useful for reflecting about teaching and learning. I work at a mexican public university and I totally agree about the lack of good study habits. The sad part of it, it’s that most of the teachers don’t feel obliged to work these habits as a part of the course objectives.

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